Monday, December 11, 2017
Business

Innovators on lookout for an energy miracle

At a legendary but secretive laboratory in California, Lockheed Martin is working on a plan that some employees hope might transform the world's energy system: a practicable type of nuclear fusion.

Some 900 miles to the north, Bill Gates and another Microsoft veteran, Nathan Myhrvold, have poured millions into a company developing a fission reactor that could run on today's nuclear waste.

And on the far side of the world, China has seized on discarded American research to pursue a safer reactor based on an abundant element called thorium.

Beyond the question of whether they will work, these ambitious schemes pose a larger issue: How much faith should we, as a society, put in the idea of a big technological fix to save the world from climate change?

A lot of smart people are coming to see the energy problem as the defining challenge of the 21st century. We have to supply power and transportation to an eventual population of 10 billion people who deserve decent lives, and we have to do it while limiting the emissions that threaten our collective future.

Yet we have already poured so much carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere that huge, threatening changes to the world's climate appear to be inevitable. And instead of slowing down, emissions are speeding up as billions of once-destitute people claw their way out of poverty, powered by fossil fuels.

Many environmentalists believe that wind and solar power can be scaled to meet the rising demand, especially if coupled with aggressive efforts to cut waste. But a lot of energy analysts have crunched the numbers and concluded that today's renewables, important as they are, cannot get us even halfway there.

"We need energy miracles," Gates said in a speech three years ago introducing his approach, embodied in a company called TerraPower.

A variety of new technologies might help. Bright young folks in American universities are working on better ways to store electricity, which could solve many of the problems associated with renewable power. Work has even begun on futuristic technologies that might cheaply pull carbon dioxide out of the air.

But because of the pressing need for thousands of large generating stations that emit no carbon dioxide while providing electricity day and night, many technologists keep returning to potential improvements in nuclear power.

After all, despite its many problems, it is the one low-carbon energy source that we know can work on a very large scale. France gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors.

Perhaps Gates can find a way forward. He is the world's second-richest man and surely the premier American technologist of the era, following the death of Steve Jobs.

His partner in TerraPower is Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft. Adept in geophysics, space physics, mathematics, economics, paleontology and gastronomy, Myhrvold is the man behind a $600 cookbook called Modernist Cuisine and a slew of other wildly inventive projects.

Their plan is to build something called a traveling wave reactor. In principle, it could operate safely for a half-century or more without refueling and could run on material that has been discarded from today's reactors as hazardous waste, solving several problems at once.

They have persuaded an energy veteran, John Gilleland, to run the company; he employs about 60 people and is laying plans to build a prototype reactor.

"We sensed that nuclear had not been pushed in an innovative sense for some time," Gilleland said. "No one had taken 21st century technology and modeling capabilities and just sort of started over."

Their method, like that of existing reactors, is based on fission, or splitting heavy atoms, then using the resulting heat to spin turbines and make electricity.

Lockheed Martin is pursuing a more difficult course: fusion. It involves fusing hydrogen variants into heavier elements, similar to the reaction that powers the sun.

The company will not say much about the program under way at its legendary Skunk Works facility in California, which developed the U-2 spy plane. But in a videotaped speech this year, a leader of the program, Charles Chase, suggested it was aiming for small, modular fusion reactors that could be built in factories.

Among the new nuclear approaches, fission reactors based on thorium are especially intriguing, offering potentially huge safety advantages. The basic concepts were proved in research by the American nuclear establishment in the 1960s, but the idea was ultimately abandoned by the Nixon administration in favor of a riskier approach called breeder reactors, which turned into an $8 billion black hole.

An engineer in Alabama, Kirk Sorensen, has helped excavate the old thorium work and founded his own tiny company, Flibe Energy, to push it forward. But it will surprise no one to hear that China is ahead of the United States on this, with hundreds of engineers working on thorium reactors.

"They're doing laps around the track, and we haven't even decided if we're going to lace up our shoes," Sorensen said.

Yet not even the speedy Chinese are likely to get a sizable reactor built before the 2020s, and that is true for the other nuclear projects as well. So even if these technologies prove to work, it would not be surprising to see the time line for widespread deployment slip to the 2030s or the 2040s. And climate scientists tell us it would be folly to wait that long to start tackling the emissions problem.

Two approaches to the issue — spending money on the technologies we have now, or investing in future breakthroughs — are sometimes portrayed as conflicting. In reality, that is a false dichotomy. The smartest experts say we have to pursue both tracks at once, and much more aggressively than we have been doing.

An ambitious national climate policy, anchored by a stiff price on carbon dioxide emissions, would serve both goals at once. In the short run, it would hasten a trend of supplanting coal-burning power plants with natural gas plants, which emit less carbon dioxide. It would drive investment into current low-carbon technologies like wind and solar power that, while not efficient enough, are steadily improving.

And it would also raise the economic rewards for developing new technologies that could disrupt and displace the ones of today. These might be new-age nuclear reactors, vastly improved solar cells, or something entirely unforeseen.

In effect, our national policy now is to sit on our hands hoping for energy miracles, without doing much to call them forth. While we dawdle, maybe the Chinese will develop a nice business selling us thorium reactors based on our old designs. For communists, they do have an entrepreneurial bent.

But surely we would all feel better about the future if the full creative power of American capitalism were unleashed on the climate problem.

Comments
This 6-year-old kid made $11 million in one year reviewing toys on You Tube

This 6-year-old kid made $11 million in one year reviewing toys on You Tube

When most people think back on the child celebrities of their time, they likely think of child movie actors, the well-trained stars of showbiz. For some, these were stars like Mary Kate and Ashley Olson, or Macaulay Carson Culkin from "Home Alone." F...
Updated: 16 minutes ago
Ticket-fighting firm hires former Florida Bar president to sue the Bar

Ticket-fighting firm hires former Florida Bar president to sue the Bar

Times Staff WriterWell, this is awkward. A company that is suing the Florida Bar has hired a former Bar president to represent it. Ramon Abadin has joined the legal team of TIKD, a company that expedites the process of fighting traffic tickets in Pin...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Tampa: Hundreds protest Trump’s decision on Jerusalem

Tampa: Hundreds protest Trump’s decision on Jerusalem

TAMPA — Hundreds rallied near the University of South Florida on Friday night to protest President Donald Trump’s recent declaration that the United States will recognize the divided city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.The protest was organize...
Published: 12/08/17
Updated: 12/09/17

Duke outage leaves 7,700 without power near Pinellas Park

PINELLAS PARK — Up to 7,700 customers across Pinellas Park, Lealman and Kenneth City lost power in a Thursday night outage, according to Duke Energy.The outage impacted a cloverleaf-shaped area of customers, with pedals extending in the cardinal dire...
Published: 12/08/17
Express lanes set to open on Veterans. They’re free -- for now.

Express lanes set to open on Veterans. They’re free -- for now.

TAMPA — Drivers on the Veterans Expressway will gain an extra lane from Gunn Highway to Hillsborough Avenue starting Saturday.But there’s a catch: Once drivers enter the lane, they won’t be able to leave it — not until a designated exit about six mil...
Published: 12/08/17
St. Petersburg chamber of commerce charts ‘Grow Smarter’ economic development strategy

St. Petersburg chamber of commerce charts ‘Grow Smarter’ economic development strategy

Times Staff WriterST. PETERSBURG — What started more than five years ago as an exploratory conversation among a handful of business leaders blossomed Friday into a full-blown community discussion of how to nurture business while working to make sure ...
Published: 12/08/17
Visit St. Pete/Clearwater makes Orlando tourists a top target

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater makes Orlando tourists a top target

In a decision driven by some major data crunching, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater next year will focus its tourism advertising on three target markets: Orlando, New York City and its Tampa Bay home."Research is going to dictate our behaviors and direction...
Published: 12/08/17
Having JW Marriott run Water Street Tampa’s new 519-room hotel expected to help Tampa pursue more upscale conventions

Having JW Marriott run Water Street Tampa’s new 519-room hotel expected to help Tampa pursue more upscale conventions

TAMPA — JW Marriott, a luxury hotel brand new to Tampa, will run the new 519-room hotel that the Water Street Tampa project is building next to the Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, developers announced Friday.Construction on the 26-story hotel is ...
Published: 12/08/17

Gravel spill shuts down parts of northbound Howard Frankland Bridge

TAMPA — Authorities are cleaning up a load of gravel spilled onto the northbound Howard Frankland Bridge on Friday afternoon, shutting down at least two lanes of traffic.The incident was reported at 2 p.m. on the stretch of the bridge drivers approac...
Published: 12/08/17
A longer wait: Some now try nearly 3 years to get disability insurance

A longer wait: Some now try nearly 3 years to get disability insurance

By the time Teralyn Fleming could finally plead her case to get federal disability insurance, she had been waiting two years and three months. The wait was not a peaceful one — a blood clotting disorder pushed her out of the workforce in 2015 ...
Published: 12/08/17